BLOOMINGTON –- Did Penn State do Indiana a favor by winning the rebound battle?
We'll know Saturday.
The No. 5 Hoosiers (14-1) face No. 8 Minnesota (15-1) in an Assembly Hall Big Ten heavyweight battle ripe with championship implications.
It starts with rebounding.
Minnesota is second in the Big Ten in rebounding margin in conference games, with a plus-12.7 edge. IU is fourth at plus-2.5. In all games the Hoosiers lead the conference in rebound margin while the Gophers are second.
Last Monday, Penn State out-rebounded Indiana 35-33. Only one other Hoosier opponent has won the rebound battle this season -– Butler, by a 40-38 margin.
In the Penn State post-game press conference coach Tom Crean stressed the Nittany Lions were was better at rebounding with two hands. In other words, don't grab the ball with just one hand.
Yes, that's been addressed in practice.
“That's a part of it that we have to get better,” Crean said. “That was going to be a big focus for Saturday, anyways.”
The Hoosiers are 2-0 in Big Ten play, with both victories coming on the road. They've won on defense, especially at Penn State when shooting and turnovers were problem areas.
“We learned another valuable lesson in the sense that sometimes when you shots are not there, when you're free throw isn't there, when your decision making isn't there, as long as your defense is there you've got a chance.
“To have two road victories where we have held teams to an average of 58 points and 32.5 percent from the field, that's something we haven't done in the past. That's something we can build on.”
Building is crucial given Minnesota (3-0 in Big Ten play) rolls into Assembly Hall with an 11-game winning streak and a talented roster that includes versatile forward Rodney Williams, double-double threat Trevor Mbakwe and point guard standout Andre Hollins.
“We expect to compete for a Big Ten championship,” coach Tubby Smith said. “Nobody is saying they want to finish second. We feel we have the players.
“Everybody has expectations and goals. What do you do with them? You have to come prepared to win. That's the bottom line.”
Minnesota hasn't lost since an 89-71 defeat to Duke in the title game of late November's Battle for Atlantis tourney in the Bahamas. It has beaten three top-20 teams in No. 19 Memphis, No. 18 Michigan State and, on Wednesday night, No. 12 Illinois.
The 84-67 win over the Illini was especially impressive given it was on the road.
“Going on the road in the Big Ten is always tough no matter who you are,” Smith said. “We hope to play well. We expect to play well. We're playing well at this juncture.”
Minnesota is the only team to win in Assembly Hall in the last two years, winning 77-74 last January.
Williams averages 12.6 points and 5.9 rebounds while shooting 54.7 percent from the field. He recently surpassed 1,000 career points and is approaching 500 rebounds and 200 assists.
Mbakwe, who missed most of last season after tearing his ACL, averages 9.3 points and 7.9 rebounds. He shoots 58.6 percent from the field. He had 19 points and 11 rebounds at Illinois.
Hollins leads the team in scoring (13.7 points) and assists (59). He shoots 43.3 percent from three-point range.
Then there's guard Joe Coleman, who scored a career-high 29 points against Illinois.
The Golden Gophers are in the middle of a grueling stretch. They host No. 2 Michigan next Thursday.
“It's a happy bunch of guys and a happy coaching staff when you're healthy and have all the pieces,” Smith said. “We're competitive. We feel like we can compete with anyone. We feel good about where we are and what we're capable of doing.”